No perfect ending this time for U.S women’s national team.
The wrong team won the penalty shootout, the wrong team did a victory lap, the wrong team will return home with the trophy.
It was supposed to be the United States. Hope Solo was supposed to save the penalty kicks. Christie Rampone was supposed to have lifted the trophy. The journey back to America should have been full of cheers and elation.
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That wasn’t how the story ended, as Japan, a team equally worthy of being crowned champions of the world after a gallant run through the tournament went on to end the United States’ perfect story with heartbreak.
Taking in the game from behind one of the goals at the German stadium, packed with nearly 50,000 fans, it was like watching a movie you thought you’d seen a hundred times, only to have the climax go the exact opposite way it normally went. You expected the plot to be predictable as ever, playfully teasing you as if hoping you didn’t know the outcome.
In extra time, Pia Sundhage’s heavily favored women turned the screws on Japan and was able to take a precious 2-1 lead with under 10 minutes remaining. The movie was supposed to end that way, it always did. Much to the contrary, however, as soon we are all presented with the twist of all twists as brave the Asian side clawed its way back into the match, leveling the score at 2-2 with mere minutes to play, effectively doing its best impression of its opponents.
Dramatically winning the trophy on penalty kicks, the Japanese ended the hope of a perfect ending and left many of those in attendance speechless at what had just happened. Everyone, including those draped with the white and (only) red flag of the country they had come so far to support, had expected the United States to win the match.
It was almost a foregone conclusion.
The emotions that followed were a mix of shock, disbelief and unbridled despair. The United States women’s national team would not be returning to America with the trophy. It would have to settle for second place and the thought that what they had accomplished was all that it was capable of.
To the casual fan or unfairly biased obsessor, that wasn’t enough. No other team outside of the Germans or maybe Brazil could have shared the claim for the trophy, and they were knocked out in the quarterfinals. The four semifinalists could hardly be mentioned in the same conversation as the mighty USA, the top-ranked team in the world. The other finalist? A good story but not a real threat.
To the keen observer though, this match was about much more than favorites and underdogs. The tournament never had a clearcut team destined to come out on top. Despite all the heroics and edge-of-your-seat moments that the USA gave us, it wasn’t its title to automatically claim.
Japan had battled through its group, continued to oust the hosts and joint-favorite Germany and then it gave the Americans the game of their lives, ultimately outlasting them on the most unfair of circumstances, the penalty shootout, en route to its first ever World Cup title.
And that was only what it had to deal with away from home.
The strength shown by the team to overcome the desolation back in its native land could not be commended with things as simple as a trophy or a bunch of medals.
So was this the wrong ending? Should the United States have been the emotional and literal favorite to win the match? Would the Americans triumph have been the right ending to a month-long tournament of magical football, one that easily outdid it’s obscenely ballyhooed brother from a summer ago?
Depends on who you ask really. The defeat was bitter and the tears were all completely genuine. The emotions of those wearing white after the last penalty had been taken could not be replicated. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have unfolded this way. In victory, Japan wrote the final chapter to the story that it wanted to read to the world, and not the one millions of women’s soccer fans in the United States necessarily wanted to hear.
That is how things go sometimes, unfortunately, and the USA has been forced to accept it, and more importantly, learn from it. What can be said, though, is the team that captivated a nation over these last weeks has handled the unfavorable result with a level of class rarely seen in today’s sports world.
Waiting for the winners to come down from the podium after raising the trophy to shake their hands and congratulate them was the beginning. Circling the pitch to thank the thousands of fans that came to support them was further evidence of this. Holding their heads high on the transatlantic flight back to the States was more proof (yes, we shared a plane with the team on the way home). It will only continue in the press whirlwind to follow. Guaranteed.
It all validates that this team has become more than wins and losses. Gold and silver medals. It has shown us that even if life throws you that proverbial curveball, you continue as if it hadn’t. Coincidentally, the same can be said for Japan.
The tournament may be over and one team may be returning home empty-handed but the lessons learned and experiences gained for both victor and runner-up will last a lifetime, for better or worse.